Is there a thing as too much singletrack? That’s a loaded question surely! Singletrack is great because nothing beats riding great, flowing singletrack when it all just clicks and you have got your groove on!
What if you were to race almost 100km of singletrack? Self-Propelled Enterprises have once again laid down the challenge at the annual Kowalski Classic which is now in its 4th year. Attracting over 800 riders across the 100, 50 and 25 options on offer, the Kowalski Classic takes in just about all of the singletrack that exists within Kowen Forest and Sparrow Hill just outside of Canberra. And, there is a lot!
The race, being round 6 of the MTBA XCM Series, also attracts racers from all over Australia. Judging from the social media activity as well as the Strava traces, many a rider from Canberra and Sydney has cast their eye over the course the last few weeks doing the obligatory recce and inspection. You know it is going to be a great hitout when you get the who’s who of the Australian XCM scene rock up to throw down on the day.
Stu Plant was in attendance on the microphone getting the atmosphere amped up and threw out the question of what would be the winning time to the Elite racers lined up on the start line. 4:18:20 from Brendan Johnston, 4:18:19 from Andy Blair, ‘happy to finish’ from a sly Dylan Cooper keeping his cards close to his chest. Speaking of chest (lamest segway ever), the question of which Elite racers have been nursing a cold in the lead up to Kowalski was posed. James Downing, recovering from a nasty viral infection received whilst in Alice Springs raised a weak arm!
The course was to take in the first leg of 25km through Kowen, then venture out to Sparrow Hill in the 2nd leg for a round trip 50km, then hit up another 25 section in Kowen for the 3rd and final leg. The 50 and 25km racers started on the 3rd loop and then took in specific trails for their respective races. It all sounds quite complicated, but there was indeed, method to the madness!
When the gun went off the whole 6 rows of Elite riders went off as a massive wall. Everyone was up for it today! The other reason was that there was a 1km section of fireroad that soared upwards to the first bit of singletrack. And as you can imagine, getting the holeshot into the singletrack is way better than a Strava KOM. about 100m from the entrance to the singletrack everyone was out of the saddle sprinting. Even the dudes 15 wheels back! The first section of singletrack pretty much went for 10km so it makes sense to be in the best position that you can be. Having said that though, once the positions are set, the pace backs off just slightly and it is a very, very long line of riders in single file and essentially you are ‘together’. But there is at least 30-40 seconds between 1st and 15th wheels so it does pay to be up the front otherwise the elastic does stretch quite a bit.
Mark Tupalski had a mechanical issue early on and found himself at the side of the trail trying to sort that. It is a little known fact that Tupac is probably one of the nicest human beings on this planet, as well as being one of Australia’s fastest racers. So when he was on a mission trying to get back up to the lead group though the congo line singletrack his words were ‘I know it’s not the done thing, but would you mind if I could get past at some stage’ – how could you say no?!? He pretty much repeated this same sentence to at least 6 riders and showed great class by easily gaining contact back with the main group.
After what seems like an eternity of being within the pine forest railing singletrack, the fireroad pointed upwards. And by upwards, it means that it is steep, and open. The race stepped it up a notch once more and when the Escalator track was presented, the race was well and truly strung out with each of the riders doing what they needed to do to do the dishing out of pain or the conservation of pain. The math was done….15km in….85km to go. Shaun Lewis copped a flat tyre going up Escalator and had to take the bitter pill and stop to fix it just to get back to the event HQ, his day over.
The aptly named trail Stairway to Heaven was greatly hyped in the lead up to the event, with the promise of a climb like no other. And they did not disappoint. What seemed like a rock step up for every switchback made for some very precise riding and definitely favoured those with skills to pay the bills, or even just impress others. Alan Vogt, one of the notorious Kowalskis was out salivating watching the racers negotiate the trail builders’ handiwork. “You’re halfway there, this is the toughest corner”.
In a blur, the first 25km was completed with Andy Blair and Brendan Johnston rolling through together followed by Dylan Cooper in a shade over 1hour and 11 minutes. The top 10 all rolled through within 5 minutes of each other for the first leg. In the Elite women’s field, Jenni King had a solid 3 and a half minute gap over Karen Hill with Christi Henderson only a further 30 seconds back. Next up was the excursion out to sublime trails of Sparrow Hill. For those of you that have been living under a rock for the past 10 years, Sparrow Hill is a working pine plantation that arguably has some of the most amazing flow in singletrack that simply needs to be seen and ridden to be believed!
When you are pacing a MTB marathon, one rule of thumb is to break it up into 3 segments. The first hour, the last hour, and the cleverly named ‘middle’. So the trek out to, and through Sparrow Hill was the ‘middle’ section. Essentially the pace is still high, but you are not going absolute full gas, it is just backed off a smidgen. Or more, depending on how baked you are!
At the 46km feedzone Mark Tupalski called it a day. The mechanical having gotten the better of him. The rest of the racers moved around through the trails quite close to each other, but because of the sinuous nature of the trails, they often could not see the other riders. That makes for some very hard mentally challenging racing. When someone is in sight, you work harder wanting to keep them in sight with the potential of catching them. When they are out of sight, you lose that visual incentive and there is the risk of the pace dropping, so you need to play some pretty serious mind games within your brain to make sure that you keep the pedal to the metal.
The first riders to appear at the 75km mark were Blair and Cooper with Johnston about 23 seconds behind. In the elite women’s race it was Jenni and Jenny rolling through together, after Jenny had to sort a flat tyre. Christi Henderson rolled through in 3rd place still on a mission.
Every single person would have been feeling the fatigue of a good 3 hours plus of riding some physically and mentally demanding singletrack. The last 25km is about emptying the tank. That is, providing you have something left in there to empty…
Andy Blair made good use of what was left in his tank to nab a good 2 and a half minutes on Dylan Cooper to take the win, rolling over the line with a very flat tyre – good timing there! Jason English can definitely put away a lot of carbohydrates in the leadup to a race and is a true ‘closer’ and he smashed the last 25km 3 minutes faster than anyone else and also demonstrated that despite being a solo 24 chugger, he can lay down a mean sprint, ousting Dylan Cooper on the line. Though, there may have been some traffic that was part of this.
Jenni King proved to everyone that she is the Queen of Kowalski(TM) winning the event for the 2nd year running. Christi Henderson crept up into 2nd place after Jenny Blair suffered yet another untimely puncture. Some days you are the hammer, some days you are the nail….
So getting back to the question posed at the beginning….Can you have too much singletrack? That all depends….a 100km made up of almost 98% singletrack is very, very difficult, both mentally and physically, yet it still draws a truckload of people who want to test themselves against the course and the other competitors.
If a race organiser can sell an event out prior to race day they must be doing something that appeals to the masses. Everyone had a story from the day. Whether it was a crash, how a berm was railed, the brutally steep climb, or how sore and tight the hamstrings and lower back became, the main takeaway was that the Kowalski Classic left an indelible mark on every single person who ventured to dare between the start and the finish line.
As they say out at Kowen, vive le Kowalski!